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The Impact of Parental Environmental Exposures on Adverse Birth Outcomes

New research suggests that both parents matter when it comes to the effects of air pollution on birth outcomes

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Children's playground with a smokestack billowing smoke in the background.

Research shows that prenatal exposure to air pollution can result in adverse birth outcomes, including low birth weight. Studies have concluded that there are significant racial and ethnic disparities in who is most affected by this, but previous research has mostly focused on how maternal characteristics (e.g., race, education, income) amplify the effects of air pollution on birth outcomes. A new paper published in Environmental Health concludes that when it comes to these effects on birth outcomes, both parents matter.

“The potential influence of paternal characteristics on birth outcomes associated with air pollution exposure has not been well studied at a national scale,” said  Dr. Devon Payne-Sturges,  an associate professor of applied environmental health in the University of Maryland School of Public Health and lead author of the study. “Additionally, given the increasing interest in the cumulative health impacts of multiple stressors on minority populations, I thought a more thorough examination of the role of paternal characteristics in studies of air pollution and birth outcomes was needed.”

The study examined the effects of PM2.5  on birth weight, using a nationally representative sample of infants. Results show worse birth weight outcomes associated with prenatal PM2.5 among births where father’s race was not reported and among Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) fathers. “We find these results about father's race intriguing and worth exploring further in future research on environmental exposures and birth outcomes,” comments Payne-Sturges.

“Several pathways have been postulated to explain how paternal factors contribute to adverse birth outcomes and racial disparities, including social and material support and health literacy. But also chronic stress associated with everyday interpersonal, institutional and structural racism experienced by both mothers and fathers of color and mixed-race couples can affect birth outcomes,”  Payne-Sturges said.

Understanding the social context behind disparate environmental exposures and their associated health impacts is really important, Payne-Sturges said. In this case, low birth weight can be associated with increased risk of neurodevelopmental delays, intellectual and developmental disabilities, other health complications, and even infant mortality.

“If we can uncover causes of low birth weight that we can change, like air pollution, then actions can be taken to prevent these outcomes,” she said. “Yet, many studies on air pollution and disparities in the effects on birth outcomes focus primarily on maternal factors. We believe it is time to examine the broader impacts of parental characteristics on exposure and health.”

Payne-Sturges is hopeful that this research will promote a more comprehensive understanding of what risk factors influence adverse birth outcomes.

“We hope this paper encourages new interdisciplinary research between environmental health scientists, reproductive health scientists, sociologists and family science researchers to answer larger policy-relevant questions about larger societal level processes—like poverty and limited access to resources—that lead to unequal environmental exposures…and enhance the negative effects of air pollution on birth weight.”

Payne-Sturges believes that paternal characteristics should be used, in addition to maternal characteristics, to describe the risks of adverse birth outcomes from harmful environmental pollutant exposures.



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